"I'll get Howard for you, mate, he's expecting your call. Won't be a tick..." the Sweepers' communications tech said, disappearing from the screen, and a confused scowl crossed Heero's face.
"'Won't be a tick'?" he muttered. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Crouched beside his chair, Une chuckled.
"I'm surprised you haven't heard it from Duo," she said with a smile. "It means it won't take long. 'Tick' as in the tick of a clock. I'd say he was Australian, considering the accent, the 'mate' and the 'tick'... You know," she continued, bemused, "with the hodge-podge of cultures and nationalities in the Sweepers organisation, I'm surprised they don't have their own language..."
Heero chuckled. "They do. It's called 'Sweeper Speak' and when two or more of them get going, it's nearly indecipherable. I still need Duo to translate-"
"Heero, good to see you! Not that we haven't seen or spoken to you recently... 4 times a day on some occasions," Howard said cheerfully, coming into view. "And the lovely Lady Une. Have I thanked you for keeping him occupied and out of our hair for the last few days? Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but it's kinda hard to get any work done when I'm being called continuously, Duo's hiding in his cockpit, Quatre's pouting because it's not Trowa on the line, Chang's complaining about security and transmission tracing, Marie's asking if it's her 'Daddy' -"
"I said I was sorry!" Heero cut in vehemently.
"I know kid, but I couldn't help teasing you about it," Howard replied, grin widening. "Get used to it. Families do that sort of thing, ya know."
Une laughed brightly. "My pleasure, Howard. It's been difficult, but we've managed to keep him busy lately. Doro has been giving him fencing 'lessons'-"
"I'm sitting right here, you know," Heero cut in sourly. "Would you like me to leave you two alone to make fun of me some more?"
"No, you can stay," Howard said, laughter evident in his voice. "It's not as much fun to tease if you're not there to hear it."
"I'm so glad I can entertain you..."
Une stifled her laughter and cleared her throat.
"So, Howard, I assume you have some news for us?"
"Yup. I've got you a way off planet. Our launch team is nearly in place. All you need to do is take the Buddy, under stealth of course, to coordinates 58-15 by 27-47, and rendezvous with the ships in 36 hours. They'll do the rest."
The Japanese teen quickly did a mental calculation and sighed. "Howard, that's the middle of the North Atlantic..."
"Such a bright boy!" the Sweeper boss teased. "Bring some cold weather gear if you want to move around the deck before the launch. Now, I have work to do, and there are a few people who want to talk to you both. Hasta luego!"
Howard moved out of sight and Marie jumped in front of the screen, surrounded by Quatre, Wufei and Duo.
"Uncle Heero! Lady Une!" the red-haired girl cried. "I missed you!"
Heero looked at Duo over her head and smiled slightly. The long-haired teen smiled back, knowing no words were needed.
In the cargo hold of the 'Buddy,' Dorothy Catalonia's blonde head popped out of Wing's cockpit, wearing an expression of awe. As she and Heero climbed down from the suit, she waved to Relena, standing near the suit's foot with Une, Noin and Wilde surrounding her protectively. "Relena! These things are so cool! You wouldn't believe what it's like on the inside."
The Princess looked up at the suit with an expression that was half disgust and half curiosity. "I'm sure it's a remarkable piece of engineering, but it's still a weapon of war. Its purpose is to kill people."
Drawing to a stop next to her, Heero nodded his head. "You're right. But that's not all a mobile suit can do. You know they were originally engineered to aid in space exploration and building? Nuclear technology, too, was developed for war, but we would not have gotten where we are today without it."
Relena bit her lip, and Noin gave Heero a pointed look.
Drawing a deep breath, he extended his hand. "I'll take you up there, if you want."
She blinked, but put her hand in his and allowed him to help her climb up the machine and over to a door that opened at his voice command. "Go on in," he said abruptly, releasing her hand and giving her a light push in the right direction.
Relena slipped into the pilot's seat and looked around the cockpit with unashamed curiosity. She barely heard his admonishment not to touch anything she didn't recognise in truth, she was far too nervous to do that, though exhilarated at the same time. **I'm sitting in the heart of the single, most powerful weapon of war ever created. I'm sitting in Heero's Gundam, and he let me come in here. Oh God!** She looked up to find him watching her with a slight smile on his lips, and she looked back down at the controls again.
Something caught her eye off to the side, and she turned to look it was a photograph of everyone, obviously taken back in Transylvania. With a bitter pang, she noted the easy, possessive way Heero's arm was draped over Duo Maxwell's shoulders in the picture, but she also saw the gentle, fond look in his eyes, and she locked the bitterness away. "You miss them, don't you?"
From outside the cockpit shields, Heero grunted. "More than I thought I would, even Kushrenada and Marquise. It was very difficult to accept them as friends and allies."
"I can imagine." Relena stood and accepted his help back out of the door. She stopped before turning to climb down. "Thank you, Heero. Not just for this thanks for giving me a second chance. I really am sorry for what I've done."
"Don't apologise to me apologise to Duo and Trowa," he said evenly as they started down, and the silence grew very uncomfortable as they moved.
They finally reached a place where Relena could not jump the distance in her skirt Heero lifted her easily and set her on her feet on the other side. She turned to go, but he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "Relena. Thank you, as well."
She smiled at him. "Good luck out there, Heero. And when you see them, tell the others I wish them the best, too. All of them."
Treize frowned as he stared at the viewscreen in front of him. It had taken a while, but Zechs had hacked them into the main OZ Space Command Network, and he was now staring at the situation board, a holographic representation of OZ forces encircling the globe, showing troop movements and numbers, supply chains, and communications networking sites.
What disturbed him the most was the sheer number of forces accumulating at the still-unfinished Libra and at various sites around the main civilian colonies. There could be no doubt that Dermail was slowly moving his pieces into place for a massive operation.
And there was little to nothing they could do about it, with what little forces and firepower as they had.
Treize pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "We need at least a full company to take out any one of those units, and that's with luck on our side."
"With all due respect, sir, you're thinking too big. I thought you wrote the book on this stuff."
Treize and Zechs both looked over at Captain Gillen in surprise. "I'm sorry?" the blond asked.
Gillen stepped forward and hit a control button on the projection. "Isolate communications grid," he ordered quickly, and the image shimmered slightly before snapping back into focus to show a web-like grid encircling the planet. "One of the first things we learned in Officer Training was to learn to recognise what you can and can't do. You're right we can't possibly take on one of those units and win. But we can disturb and delay SpaceCom operations by messing up the communications grid."
Treize blinked. Why hadn't he thought of that? With a small, self-deprecating smile, he waved to Gillen. "Please, continue."
The man blushed a little as he picked up a pointer. "Look the entire grid relies on a satellite network to bounce signals around the Earth. You probably know far better than I do how hard it would be to hack those satellites. No offence, Lieutenant Marquise, but they would catch on to you if you tried that again; it took far too long."
Zechs blushed, but nodded. "You're right. But there are other ways of disabling a satellite than hacking it."
Treize nodded, his eyes gleaming. "If we choose our targets carefully, we can send Tallgeese and what other suits we have out to at least disable them. I like it. Zechs?"
The tall blond shrugged. "It won't last long, and we won't be able to do it again, but it might give at least some of the troops who will be meeting OZ head on a little more time to prepare."
Gillen put down the pointer. "I've got at least a few pilots who'd be up to a space operation. With you two and Mr. Walker, I think this could work."
Treize's eyes narrowed as he focused on two particular comm. links, the cornerstones of the entire network. "I think you're right."
Une watched the 'Buddy' disappear into the distance with a cold feeling in her stomach.
From the bow of the Sweepers freighter they'd been taken to, she and Heero could see nothing in any direction but more water. It was the perfect place from which to make their escape!
Heero cringed as he turned around to find the ship's first mate Arnold, if he remembered correctly waving at him. "Yes?"
Arnold barked a short laugh. "Are you sure you're friends with the Kid? You seriously need to lighten up a little "
A small growl coming from Heero was enough to make the man's rambling speech drop off quickly, but he recovered and kept going. "Anyway, all I wanted to say is that you should get under cover. We won't launch you guys till after dark. By then, we should be rigged to dive, and we'll disappear before OZ gets close."
"Rigged to dive?" Une asked. "You can't possibly be serious! This is no submarine "
Arnold grinned and winked at her. "Not right now, no. This is what we Sweepers call a 'Surface Unit.' I'm surprised you OZ guys didn't catch on to us, actually. There are five ships to each Unit the central ship is always a sub, and we can break and scatter in a half hour, under good sea conditions. Pretty cool, eh?"
Une rolled her eyes. "No wonder we could never trace rogue launch signatures. You're telling me the actual launch equipment is on the sub?"
"Part of it is," Arnold replied. "State of the art system. Howard designed it himself, you know."
"Hn, I'm not surprised," Heero said, looking around with more curiosity than before. "How many of these units do you have?"
"State secrets, matey," Arnold said, winking. "Ask the Kid, sometime, if you really want to know. Now get inside, shoo!"
Heero and Une shared a look as Arnold steered them through a nondescript bulkhead door, keeping up a steady line of chatter as he moved. And they thought the flight out was long!
"Umm Arnold?" Une finally asked when he stopped to breathe. "About how long till launch time?"
"Four hours. After sundown, as soon as a radar sweep of the area comes out clear." He slammed the door behind them. "It's pretty cool. Launching from one of these babies. I'm sure you'll enjoy the modified catapult system "
As he continued to talk, Une put a steadying hand on Heero's shoulder, preventing the teen from lunging at their guide and forcibly shutting him up. They could take this for four hours.
They had to.
Captain Wilde shook his head in disbelief. "I really wish I didn't believe you, Noin. But after that broadcast they really sent him to prison in Siberia? I thought that was just a bad, old pre-Colony joke." He drained his teacup and yawned it was late, but he refused to get any sleep before Noin and he had their little 'talk.'
Three hours out, unloading, and three hours back in the 'Buddy' had been a rough trip, but he was glad he'd gone along.
"I wish it were," Luca said sadly. "I only saw them a few weeks after the breakout, but you should have seen them I mean, Treize and the other pilot."
Wilde nodded. "I can't believe a Gundam pilot left him alive long enough to talk things through, though I'm definitely glad about it. Are they all like that kid I met earlier?" He shuddered slightly.
Noin cocked an eyebrow. "Heero's not bad! He's just well, he's one of a kind. Can bend steel with his bare hands, pilot anything with wings, fences like a madman, but he melts if you give him a puppy-dog look. It's really funny to see it happening." She laughed gently. "No, the others are all different in their own ways, but they're all just as dangerous. They should just be kids, Tim " She shook her head. "Even the snotty little bastard who blew up my cadets has turned out to have a good heart in him. I'm glad we're all on the same side."
"Me, too." He sighed heavily. "Any idea what we should be expecting now?"
Noin shook her head. "It's hard to tell. Dermail's attention is divided between Romefeller headquarters, Space, and here, of course. I can't imagine he'll play nice for long."
Wilde gave her a smile. "And here I was worried you wouldn't be glad to see me!"
"Tim!" Noin scolded teasingly. "You should know that men who bring mobile suits take first place around here, regardless of what Relena says."
He laughed an infectious sound that made Noin grin, as well. "Note to self meet Lieutenant Noin with Mobile Suit and roses. Chocolates, too, if possible."
Noin stood, blushing slightly. "Dark chocolate, preferably, Captain. Oh, and by the way, despite the outfit," she said, gesturing at her spotless uniform, "OZ and I have parted ways. I'm not Lieutenant Noin anymore you can just call me Lucretzia. Or Luca, if you want."
"Luca, I like that," he said, pronouncing it carefully. "Don't mind if I do." He winked.
Striding towards the door, Noin snorted. "Get some rest, Tim. And next time, don't forget the chocolate."
Bravo smiled slightly as she finished her morning run. The sun was just rising she now knew from experience that the cool, pleasant morning would transform in less than an hour into the intolerable heat that most people associated with the desert lands surrounding the Manguanac base.
The time she'd spent with Rashid's people had done her good her hair was growing out in a fetching cloud of blondish curls, and a healthy tan had replaced the waxy, translucent pallor of her skin. She hurried indoors.
The first day in the desert, she'd asked Abdul, her self-appointed tour guide, why everyone wore draping clothes, and he'd laughed as he explained the tradition. She understood it well, now at least, the part about protecting one's skin from the unforgiving heat of the day. The religious aspects were lost on her. She'd called Abdul and the rest cavemen for their beliefs, and then laughed in private at the shocked looks on their faces.
Dressing thoughtfully after a shower, Bravo reflected back on her morning run. The few people she'd met with had used the funny word with her again Sahar. She was picking up their language slowly, admittedly but this was one word she could not figure out.
She fortunately didn't have long to ponder the question Abdul was, as usual, waiting to escort her to breakfast. She greeted him with a smile. "Good morning, Abdul."
He smiled back. "Sleep well?"
She nodded. "Yes, but I have a question. What does the word 'Sahar' mean?"
Abdul blinked a little. "It means 'dawn.' Why do you ask?"
She frowned slightly. "I've heard people using that word around me quite a lot."
"They think it suits you," he replied, still grinning slightly. "To most people here, you are a mysterious outsider and friend of Master Quatre's, who runs to greet the sun every morning. And what's more your hair it is the colour of the morning sun."
"It is?" A hand flew up self-consciously to run through the short curls.
Abdul nodded again. "When people don't know what to make of you, they can only draw conclusions from what they see."
**Calling me 'Dawn.' I kind of like that ** Bravo smiled.
Trowa cursed as the car skidded at a stoplight.
It was one of the few things he didn't even share with Quatre, but Trowa had a real phobia when it came to driving in the snow. He hated it in the same way normal people hated snakes and scorpions and roaches.
Of course, being a Gundam pilot, it would have been unmanly to admit to it, and so here he was, driving to the supermarket in a Canadian snowstorm while Sally Po sat back in the warm, comfy safehouse with her feet up! Waiting for the light to turn green, he couldn't help wishing that Treize and Zechs' innate sense of chivalry hadn't been rubbing off on them all, back in Transylvania. He was raised by mercenaries, for goodness' sake! Since when was he such a gentleman?
**You know the answer to that, soldier,** he growled at himself, remembering to use a light foot on the gas pedal, **stop whining and just drive, already!**
He had vague ideas of taking Heavyarms to the store as the car skidded again on an icy patch. People were honking their horns and making rude gestures as they passed they all seemed perfectly comfortable driving in such nasty conditions. He pulled into the Sobey's parking lot with a grateful sigh. "This damn car handles like a pre-Colony junker," he groaned, resting his forehead on the steering wheel for a moment.
**Oh well, I'm here. The sooner I go inside, the sooner I can leave, and if she decides she wants something else, she can damn well come here and get it herself!**
Trowa grinned to himself as he opened the door and headed out into the falling snow. It was a strange feeling, having this extended 'family' to belong to, but he was finding that he liked it an awful lot.
**I hope Quatre and the others are okay.**
Marquis Weyride typed faster.
He'd had a sense of foreboding all evening that refused to go away, and he was almost certain he knew what it was.
Dermail and his lackeys had been circling closely, watching everyone like hawks for a little over a week, then they abruptly disappeared this morning. It was hard enough to contact anyone with the Duke staring over his shoulder, but now
He was certain that, whatever they were planning, it was going into the execution phase right now, and he *had* to get a note out before then! Relena had to know!
My dearest Relena,
I am saddened that such dire circumstances should be the reason of my correspondence to you, but I have little time to write. I must be brief.
Dermail and his men have been very active here at Romefeller Headquarters, and very suspicious of myself, among others, though I doubt they would do anything rash. Not yet, at any rate. But he withdrew this morning and has not been seen anywhere in the complex. It could be nothing. Then again, given all that has happened and the terse warnings I've received from our mutual ally, K, I have assumed the worst. Tonight is a meeting of our General Assembly, and I have little doubt he will be back.
I don't know for how much longer I will be able to assist you here. I beg you to be patient and strong, my dearest girl. Your father would have been proud of the lady you are becoming, I'm sure of it.
Be safe, and remember that I remain your faithful friend and servant,
Marquis de Weyridge, Esq.
Sighing heavily, he hit [send]. Weyridge knew he had allies in the Assembly, and they would follow where he led.
He could only hope he wouldn't lead them into bloodshed.